online mastering

Online Mastering vs. Mastering Engineers: Which Is the Better Option?

There’s an ongoing debate that pits online mastering against Mastering Engineers. It’s the music version of some sort of dystopian world where robots slowly take over (see iRobot).

So really, this is a debate about robots versus humans. Who will win?

To answer that question, let’s dive headfirst into this topic. And as we’ll find, the answers may not be so simple as having a winner and a loser.

What Is Mastering?

Mastering is the last step in making your song sound professional before you release it to the world.

The general idea with mastering is to make all of the song’s elements balanced and sounding the best it can during playback in any form. So mastering done well helps your song sound great on both an iPhone and studio monitors, your car speakers and your earbuds.

Mastering your music is especially important now that people listen on a myriad of devices. So it’s super important to know how and where to get the best master possible.

Usually, the mastering process involves EQ, compression, limiting, enhancement of the stereo audio, and other technical aspects we won’t get into in this article. I’m going to talk about how online mastering and mastering by an Engineer differ and which could be better for you.

How Does Online Mastering Work?

Whether you use LANDR, eMastered, or some other automated mastering service, they all generally work the same way.

First, you upload your song to the mastering service’s website. The system analyzes your track, comparing the production style to songs in its library of music. It listens for genre cues that it has learned about from this collection of songs in the library.

Next, the system will figure out what tools your song needs (EQ, compression, saturation, etc.) and start applying those to the song. The idea is that the selection of tools and the level at which they’re used is unique to your song based on the analyzing stage.

And lastly, the online mastering system will put the final master on your song, tweaking the parameters, levels, and balance to make your song as professional sounding as it can.

Typically, these types of services allow you to compare the unmastered track with the mastered track back-to-back.

If you were to hire a Mastering Engineer, this is essentially what they would do. Listen, figure out what tools to use, apply those tools, adjust the settings until they’re just right, and master the track.

However, cost and quality are the big differences between mastering online and mastering with a real person.

There’s an ongoing debate that pits online mastering against Mastering Engineers. It’s the music version of some sort of dystopian world where robots slowly take over (see iRobot). So really, this is a debate about robots versus humans. Who will win?

Online Mastering Cost

With online mastering, you typically pay a monthly or yearly fee. Depending on your plan, this gives you either a certain number of masters per month or an unlimited number of masters. The plan you choose can also affect what type of song file you’re given.

The two biggest names in the automated mastering world are LANDR and eMastered. So let’s look at the prices for their unlimited plans.

With LANDR, you can pay $25 per month ($299 a year) and get an unlimited number of lo-res and high-res MP3 versions of your mastered tracks as well as unlimited WAVs and HD WAVs. Along with this, they store your files on their servers so you can go back and access (and download) them at any time.

With eMastered, you pay $15 per month ($180 a year) and they offer a bit more than LANDR. You can get high-res MP3, WAVs, HD WAVs, but then you also have the option to tweak your masters with mastering strength, EQ, volume, and stereo width. You can also upload a reference track for the system to analyze instead of their library of songs.

So with online mastering, you’re looking at $15-25 per month for an unlimited number of masters. Now let’s compare that to the cost of a Mastering Engineer.

Mastering Engineer Cost

For this section, I’m going to exclude the Mastering Engineers that work with big-name artists. Instead, I’m going to focus on rates for the good Engineers that won’t charge you an arm and a leg and another arm.

Generally, a Mastering Engineer will charge you $20-100 per track. For that price point, you can get a professional master done by a human who can change things to your specifications.

For example, Disc Makers will master your song for $50 and Sage Audio will cost a bit more than that but still less than $100. You may want to first look up some trusted local Mastering Engineers to see if they have better prices than some of these big mastering companies.

Online Mastering Pros And Cons

Yes, online mastering sounds super convenient and affordable. But there are also cons. It’s important to look at both sides to see if you’re getting the best deal for your dollar.

Pros:

  • Get pro-level mastering of your songs.
  • Quick turnaround time.
  • Affordable (can get unlimited masters for a monthly fee).
  • Some customization available (depending on the service).

Cons:

  • A computer-generated algorithm can’t pick up on some nuances in the audio that a human could .
  • Doesn’t tell you if your mix needs to be adjusted.
  • Overall quality may not be as good as an experienced Engineer.

Mastering Engineer Pros And Cons

On the other hand, hiring a Mastering Engineer clearly has its benefits. But again, this too has some downsides.

Pros:

  • Get pro-level mastering of your songs.
  • A human Engineer can tell you exactly what (if anything) you need to fix in your mix before they can master it.
  • They can tailor the master to your liking, even working off one or multiple reference tracks you give them.
  • Will end up with a master that may be higher quality than a master from an algorithm.

Cons:

  • Hiring a Mastering Engineer can be very expensive, which may be a big turnoff for DIY musicians.
  • Takes longer to get your mastered tracks.

Some people say online mastering, although it will improve as time goes on, will never replace having a human set of ears to listen to and master your track. And, despite how helpful automated mastering can be to indie musicians, they may be right.

So Who Wins?

To answer the question of this article, we have to look at your specific situation. Because if we simply ask, “Who wins?” without any context, we’d have to say, “They both win.”

Basically, it comes down to which option gives you the best end result, and that can vary from song to song. It depends on what Mastering Engineer you may hire, what automated mastering service you choose, what you can afford, and if you can even trust an algorithm with your music.

The best way to know which one is better for you is to try them both out on the same song. So try this: pay a Mastering Engineer to master one of your songs while also using an online mastering service on the same song.

Then compare the two. Listen to the song on your best studio speakers or headphones and then listen on earbuds. Listen in your car. Listen through your phone.

Ask yourself, “Which one just sounds better to me? Which one has the vibe I want for this song?”

Your answer to those questions is what the decision comes down to. If an automated mastering service spits out a better master than the Engineer you hired, go with the mastering service. And vice versa.

You’ll also want to consider how often you’ll need songs to be mastered. If you don’t put out a lot of music, a mastering service may not make fiscal sense for you. But if you release music all the time, it may save you money in the long run to use a service like LANDR or eMastered.

The Unexpected Takeaway

When people discuss the topic of online mastering verse human mastering, most people overlook one thing: Mastering Engineers can make bank. And you can become a Mastering Engineer.

If you have the skills, you can charge up to $100 per track — that’s an estimated yearly income of $25,000 to $150,000, depending on your skill level and how quickly you can turnaround a professional master. That’s not bad at all, especially if you love working with audio.

Some people say online mastering, although it will improve as time goes on, will never replace having a human set of ears to listen to and master your track. And, despite how helpful automated mastering can be to indie musicians, they may be right.

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